Will Denver's homeless women be left in the cold?

Photos: Faces of homelessness in Denver

Will Denver's homeless women be left in the cold?

Julie Hale, sitting in the St. Francis Center on a cold morning, perks up as she hears her name called.

"Did he say Julie? Did you make it?" asks Christina Smith, a 46-year-old homeless woman.

"I don't know," says the 48-year-old Hale as she brushes past Smith and runs up to an outreach worker.

Diana Flahive became project coordinator of the Women's Homeless Initiative.
Diana Flahive became project coordinator of the Women's Homeless Initiative.
Erica Guzman, Teresa Turner and Stefanie Cardwell rely on the services and shelter of the Gathering Place and the Delores Project.
Erica Guzman, Teresa Turner and Stefanie Cardwell rely on the services and shelter of the Gathering Place and the Delores Project.

It's Saturday, the sun has just risen, and Hale and eighteen other women have been waiting for over an hour to find out if they are going to have beds that night at a church that provides emergency shelter for homeless women. She got a bed the night before, but Saturdays are more competitive.

Jeff Ritter, the outreach worker on duty, is announcing the winners of the lottery.

"Did I get it? Am I on the list?" Hale asks, her volume rising as Ritter scans his list.

"I'm sorry. You did not," he says.

It was a different Julie.

See also:
- Julie Hale tells her story about the struggle to survive
- Photos: Faces of homelessness in Denver

Storming off, Hale begins to shout, at no one in particular: "I never get it! I never get it on Saturdays. I am tired of this! We all take our turns, but I am tired of this."

Several women come over to comfort her as she takes a deep breath and tries to calm down. "I don't mean to take it out on you guys," she says, before bursting into tears and crying into the chest of Mary, a 62-year-old homeless woman who didn't win the lottery the day before.

"How I survive all of this is beyond me. I should be dead by now," Hale sobs. "I'm having a nervous breakdown here."

These chaotic scenes are commonplace on Saturday mornings at the St. Francis Center, which provides services and programs — but no emergency beds — for homeless men and women in Denver. This is also the place where women can get into a lottery for a bed in a program run by the Women's Homeless Initiative, which works with a coalition of local churches to provide twenty spots a night for homeless women — except on Saturdays, when WHI has access to only twelve beds. It's an all-volunteer effort that kicked off in March, just before the city pushed forward with a controversial anti-camping ordinance that made it officially illegal to sleep outside. That action was accompanied by promises from the city of more services for the homeless. And this past weekend, the city opened a fifty-mat emergency shelter for women during the winter.

But homeless women say that the city hasn't done enough. Even with the lotteries, they charge, the odds are stacked against them. While beds assigned to men occasionally go empty, homeless women say that sometimes, sleeping on the streets seems like the only realistic option.

That is, until the cops tell them they're breaking the law.


Police! Time to wake up!"

The shout breaks the morning silence. It comes from Officer Layla DeStaffany, who shines her flashlight on a homeless man wrapped in a sleeping bag beside a church in Capitol Hill. It's just past 6 a.m. on one of the coldest days yet this year, and as part of the Denver Police Department's Homeless Outreach Unit, DeStaffany has just begun her morning shift. Parking her police bicycle on the corner, she tells the homeless man he has to get up and move along.

"Just make it real clean, okay?" she says.

"Yes, ma'am," he responds.

"Was there anyone else here last night?" she asks.

"No," he says, as he sits up and starts to pack up his belongings.

After asking a few more questions and offering some suggestions about where he can find shelters indoors that night, DeStaffany hops on her bike, smooth and quick, and rides off into the dawn. She checks out a few more spots on nearby streets that she knows are go-to homeless campsites, then rides by the church again.

The homeless man is back inside his sleeping bag.

"Okay, what's going on?" she shouts, waking him. Startled, he mumbles an inaudible excuse.

"No, get up now," she says, forcibly.

"I wasn't going back to sleep," he finally replies.

"That is unacceptable," she says. "You are back in your sleeping bag."

On the first warning, DeStaffany is nice — but she becomes less so when she has to tell someone to leave a second time.

Still, this is the most confrontational tone DeStaffany will use this morning, which she spends biking in the cold for hours, searching for homeless campers and explaining to them that they must move on because "camping" is now against the law. Move where? DeStaffany, who's been with the homeless-outreach team since it was formed nearly six years ago, has a wealth of knowledge about where men and women can find a safe place to sleep indoors.

But her job is a delicate balancing act, one that involves responding to complaints filed with the DPD about disturbances as well as taking the initiative with the homeless she encounters along the way. "It's about the homeless people," she explains. "It's about the citizens who are impacted by homelessness when they have somebody that's living in their alley. It's the businesses that are impacted. It's the service providers that are impacted. It's really about everybody's safety and trying to get folks connected to the help and services that they need."

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I am a homeless man. I have had to sleep outside before. When there are empty beds, mats, or, cots in a shelter it is because there are still people camping, not because we have solved the problem of homelessness.


Six days and no comments on the front page story? Is it a sign of how relevant and important the story is, or how irrelevant Westword has become? Both? I mean, it seems any semi-sentient being who simply reads the headline would immediately ask, "Is it really worse for homeless women than men, or is Westword once again fabricating an issue (sexual bias) where there is none?"

So you might think that somewhere in the first paragraph, or at least the first dozen paragraphs, there would be an explanation of the problem this article supposedly addresses, you know, the bias against homeless women. And, when you get to the very end of the introductory section, somewhere around paragraph 12, you will read "But homeless women say that the city hasn't done enough. Even with the lotteries, they charge, the odds are stacked against them. While beds assigned to men occasionally go empty, homeless women say that sometimes, sleeping on the streets seems like the only realistic option."

So "homeless women say" the odds are stacked against them, huh? Guess that's enough evidence to write a huge multi-page cover story, 'cause some unidentified homeless women said so...I tried to read the rest of the article, and while the author alluded to numbers here and there, it would appear the article and its title are intentionally misleading. Because, when you finally get to page 4, you can read how "While men's shelters have had vacancies — in the past, sometimes as many as fifty beds or mats went unused on a given night — women's shelters are almost always packed. In fact, since the camping ban went into effect, shelters for both men and women usually reach capacity." 

So let's get this straight; the men's and women's shelters have been full since "the camping ban" went into effect...last April? In other words, from the start of this winter both the men's and woman's shelters have been full to capacity, despite the story starting off with the claim that bed's in men's shelters go unused? OK, well there's still a problem with women being underrepresented, right? Which is why on page 5 you can read "In the 2007 survey, there were 787 homeless women counted in Denver — which accounted for just 28.7 percent of the homeless population. The latest count determined that more than 1,000 women were homeless in Denver."

I'm guessing that the number of men who are homeless has also increased significantly since the bottom fell out of the economy and that's why the author doesn't want to mention whether, as a percentage of the total homeless population, the number of women actually went up or down (yeah, who wants to mess with actual facts and present the full story when you're fabricating an issue). Nonetheless, if (unlike the author) you are capable of adding two and two you will see that for every homeless woman in Denver there are roughly two homeless men. And, as quoted in the paragraph above, both the men's and woman's shelters are full to capacity. So the article basically argues that, never mind there are two men on the street for every woman, homeless women are being discriminated against...or something like, well, there are these things at the convention center and there are so many homeless people and so many services and it's all so confusing, and women are coming here from out of state, and women have special issues vs. men...and if we throw all these half-truths and misinformation and "stuff" (including some partial numbers) together it's a cover story, right?

But I guess that's just what happens when you don't want to rock that stinky Denver boat, lest someone lose their invite to Hick's xmas parties - you make up stuff about discrimination against homeless women that really doesn't exist, as opposed to writing about our hypocritical self-serving politicians, slimy "business leaders", the criminal cops, the failing schools, the amazingly dysfunctional University, the increasing street crime, etc., etc. Yep, please write some more unintelligible articles about the demise of RockBar, now THAT'S important....

Merry Christmas, and thanks again for doing such a great job...

patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

@Renaldo thanks for the message -- and yes, it's the first one posted after this story. Our news stories often do not get comments -- unlike anything on pit bulls or pot -- so we appreciate this. In fact, we'd like to publish it in our print edition, ideally with your full name. Please contact me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com.